“We’ve only ever had one world order and it’s now going away,” the American geopolitical strategist Peter Zeihan said recently. In the new world order that follows, Canada will be forced to decentralize.
In the long-forgotten decade of the 1860s, the map of our current world order was just coming into view. The ink was still wet. Today’s hegemon had just come to resemble the country we think of today. With her civil war over, the purchase of Alaska complete, and her borders firmly drawn, America entered a relatively stable period for the next six generations. So too did many others. In fact, many important nation-states were birthed precisely at the same moment in time. Canada in 1867. Germany in 1870. Italy in 1871.
So why then? And what now?
At the beginning of that century the world consisted mostly of mini-states under the umbrella of aristocracies and empires. By the end of the 1800s most had been swept off the map and replaced by the nation-state—a radically new kind of political entity—that remained for a century and a half, until now.
If one felon can be made the scapegoat for how it all came to be, that honour would go to precision machining—more accurate methods of measurement in production—that destroyed the ancient practice of handmade production. Of precision machining, Joseph Whitworth (1803-1887), inventor of the screw thread said it best, “You can only make as well as you can measure.” And nothing illustrates better than guns and weapons of war.
Verbruggen’s horizontal boring machine—installed at the Royal Arsenal in London in 1774—took accurate measurement to heart and produced cannons, mortars and artillery pieces that were near identical. It was a revolutionary act. No one before had made two perfectly identical weapons, let alone the framework to produce infinite copies. Precision machining begat the explanation for everything else that was to follow. The real consequences would turn out to be political.
Manufacturing soon required large machinery, dies, moulds, and foundries that could only be financed at large scale. A need for centralized political and financial institutions soon followed. Only societies that could build factories and finance them mattered in this upscaling world. Bigger was better. Small societies had to be consumed or merged to make larger ones. The reorganization began to solidify in the 1860s.
It didn’t matter if people wanted change or not. For example, telling someone in Lower Saxony in 1800 that they were going to be German would be nothing short of baffling to them. They would have no idea what you were talking about. Nevertheless, seventy-years later north-central Europeans had been shoehorned into a new union called Germany. A unifying narrative then had to be instilled in its citizens. It took time for people to think of themselves as German—a process not completely successful even today—although it happened with enough utility to make it viable. The same happened elsewhere. The identities of smaller groups such as Manx, Breton, Cornish, and Bavarian had to be eliminated, or at the very least, subsumed. So too in the New World. Emerging nation-states such as Canada had to swallow, or unite, depending on perspective, the smaller societies—Cree, Acadians, Quebecois, Blackfoot, or Metis. The new political structure required citizens to think of themselves as national Canadians, national Americans, national Chileans.
Centralization, colloquially referred to as globalization, continued unabated for a century and a half. But it has now reached its nadir. Technology is to blame once again.
Technology in the 19th century was concerned with making things precisely.
Technology in the 21st century is focused on communicating widely.
The computer chip advanced the efficiency in communication so well that businesses could enter markets never before imagined, so far away as to have never before been accessible. As the global marketplace expanded, it appeared that centralization would increase even further. The dark side was completely unforeseen—a slagheap of chaotic noise.
The new communication technologies allowed people everywhere to express themselves without inhibition or a good editor. Like a room full of children all speaking at once, the result was a dizzying confusion. Media that calmly served national audiences for a hundred years were suddenly challenged and then, obliterated. Some suggest 2016 as a defining year when the national American bell-weather, the New York Times, switched to a profoundly different business model run on advocacy instead of news.
Symbolism aside, the outcome of new communication technologies has not been an increase in knowledge and understanding but a deafening polarization. Governments now grapple with this in a hectic, moralistic panic, while tech-giants try to manage the information space for themselves. It’s wholly untenable for everyone involved.
In the meantime, giving voices to all those that felt, and often were, on the margins of society—Breton, Bavarian, Haida, lesbians, goths—reignited old identities and created new ones.
Visions of future desires were perhaps illuminated best in the battle between the cosmopolitans (a.k.a. globalists) that want even more centralization and communitarians that want far less.
Jane Jacobs, prior to the Soviet Union’s collapse, said in Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984) that, “Today the Soviet Union and the United States each…anticipates the economic decline of the other. Neither will be disappointed.” The truth is that change often has very little to do with what people want. Lower Saxons in 1869 had no desire to call themselves German. They got it anyway. We too will be given something we can’t fully imagine just yet. Nevertheless, while the details are fuzzy, the trend is clear.
We know, “chaos is order waiting to be deciphered,” as Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago said. Unfortunately, the most direct route to order is through authoritarianism. We are experiencing elements of this already. Yet, authoritarianism leads to a breakdown in the trust that is normally conferred from citizens to government during times of democratic health. Citizens withdraw from democratic institutions as they crumble. Their trust, dreams, desires and hopes then shift toward local institutions and relationships that are both geographically, economically and emotionally closer to home. The result is increasing political pressure for decentralization—the process of governments, willingly or unwillingly, giving control to local entities.
Brexit was a profound example of this. For a national government to take power back from an international polity was the epitome of centralization in reverse. The international organizations clearly have the most to lose. The European Union for example, is not likely to last much longer. Its full unravelling will be a sign that peak-globalization has passed and the slide down the backside is well underway. Arguably, it already is.
What’s most profound in the case of Brexit is that devolution did not stop at Westminster. Wales, Scotland, Northern Island demanded further devolution—on threat of secession. The message was clear—the baton of power that Westminster would rather have kept for herself should be handed down even further. It has left the United Kingdom in an existential angst as it ponders its own national raison d’etre.
Canada will be, and in fact already is, in the same predicament.
The Covid-19 pandemic presented the most startling showcase of rising threats to the Canadian confederation. Her provinces quickly snapped up powers they did not necessarily own in an attempt to manage quickly shifting circumstances. National agreements that were meant to bind the nation together such as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms were often ignored. Expediency became more important than unity.
The situation tested one of the key powers that a nation manages—freedom of movement. Control over mobility is an indicator of who de facto controls geographic space. While the Canadian federal government restricted movement at external land borders, and later air and maritime entry points, it was the provinces that appeared willing to usurp even stronger measures internally. The Maritime provinces took the reins early. Forming an old alliance of small players banding together in a bubble of self-imposed isolation, they quickly restricted the rest of Canada from unfettered entry.
On the opposite side of the country, British Columbia had initially been careful not to implement provincial border restrictions with Alberta. After the cabinet received a legal opinion in January of 2021, Premier Horgan noted that, “we can’t prevent people from travelling to British Columbia.” A short while later in April, the province turned inward. Geographic restrictions were imposed on its own citizens. For example, Vancouver Island was cordoned off. Citizens could no longer get on or off the island unless their movement was deemed essential. The last time Vancouver Island was isolated as such, was back in 1866, when she was a separate entity—the Colony of Vancouver Island.
Even at the centre of confederation, Ontario and Quebec both hunkered down in a phobia of movement that appeared indifferent to the ideals of federal unity.
An apathetic Prime Minister seemed content to leave matters in the hands of the provinces and any local level of government that wished to flex authority.
What has so profoundly changed for Canada is that from the 1860s, precision machining necessitated larger political entities, which led to creation of the nation-states. Unrelated peoples then needed a common story to bind them together. As Yuval Noah Harari writes, “Any large-scale cooperation—whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe—is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.” And for a century and a half, Canada, along with the rest of the nation-states of the West, successfully managed the collective stories through cohesion of communication, institutions, and an education system that exalted it.
New communication technologies upended the entire story. In spite of this, the underlying economic need for centralized political and financial structures has not changed. The tension is almost guaranteed to favour authoritarianism as a stop gap measure to control the discord between economy and governance that now brews like oil on water. Authoritarianism will push people to find coherent stories of belonging and those will almost certainly be rediscovered close to home.
It should come as no surprise that Brexit was not an anomaly in this regard. Local and regional governments are wresting control from national and international governments across the West. From Wales and Scotland, to South Dakota and Florida, they are seizing areas of health, borders, mobility and finance in ways that make globalists shudder.
Assuming Canada can resist fracturing into tribal-like mini-states—already of concern as the national government reacts in an ossified-like choreography—radical decentralization appears the way of her future. The greatest mistake the Canadian federal government could make is to attempt more centralization of power. If history can be a useful guide, the federal government will try to do exactly that. Canada won’t be unique in this regard.
Yet if wishful thinking were possible, there is hope that wise leadership will enter. If so, it would gently facilitate the federal government into its own retirement, moving it from the role of centralized manager to a kind of consultant-on-retainer where the nation-state enters a more diffuse regionalism. The steely baton of control would smoothly slip into the hands of more local actors.
Perhaps a poignant note can be taken from the Russian saying on these matters—God is high above and the Tsar is far away.
As the one world order, structured on the political frame-work of the nation-state since the 1860s, and secured internationally by the American military machine, now goes away, Canada, whether she knows it or not, teeters at a critical inflection point. If she wishes to remain united for the next 150 years, she will need to accept a great paradox—the need for radical decentralization.